Germans have started to feel worn-out by the coronavirus lockdown. Psychiatrists and psychologists have warned that a further extension could have severe long-term effects on society and mental health.
After weeks of snow and subzero temperatures, there is a touch of spring in the air in late February in Berlin. Thousands of people are out on the streets. In busy areas, just a handful wear masks. Although nonessential retailers remain closed and eateries are only open for takeout, long lines snake outside every coffee shop, artisanal bakery and outdoor food market.
It would be easy to forget that Germany has been in lockdown for nearly four months and strict contact limits remain in place.
And the lockdown is no longer working: COVID-19 cases have begun to rise again, and experts say Germany is heading into the third wave of the pandemic. The vaccine rollout is going slower than in other countries like the United States and the United Kingdom and the spread of virus variants is on the rise, most notably the more contagious B.1.1.7 British mutation.
"All the data and surveys so far show that a large majority still follow the rules," Rolf van Dick, professor of social psychology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, told DW. "But I believe that the minority who do not will become larger the longer lockdown lasts."
According to a survey by German broadcaster ARD published on February 19, while a narrow majority still support restrictions, 27% of Germans believe that current coronavirus rules go too far, up 5% from two weeks earlier. Only 16% believe that coronavirus restrictions do not go far enough, down from 24% in the previous survey.
This is some of the lowest support seen for lockdowns since the first restrictions were brought in almost a year ago.
"A lack of long-term perspectives has made people exhausted, especially in the winter months," said psychologist Stephan Grünewald, a member of the expert advisory council on the pandemic for the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. He is conducting research into the long-term effects of lockdowns on the population.
For some it now feels like we will be "stuck in lockdown forever," he believes.
In the Netherlands, the introduction of a strict new curfew in January was met by riots in the streets. Similar scenes of violence have been seen on a smaller scale in several German cities, instigated by those who oppose coronavirus restrictions.
Grünewald told DW that, from his research, it's clear that lockdowns can lead to an "increase in frustration and aggression" across society. And Rolf van Dick pointed out that it's not necessarily extremists who turn violent, but rather ordinary citizens who are simply growing tired with restrictions.
"The riots [in the Netherlands] mainly began with young people who were partying and then there were conflicts with the police. That can happen anywhere and escalate quickly, especially if alcohol is involved, without it having to be attributed to entrenched attitudes on the part of all those involved," van Dick said.
Lockdown skeptics — among them the conspiracy theorist "Querdenker" or "lateral thinkers" movement that organized several large maskless anti-lockdown rallies in German cities in 2020 — have been branded an extremist minority by most sides of the media and political spectrum.
But psychiatrist Grünewald believes these groups may gain popularity once again during a prolonged lockdown.
"So far in the pandemic, coronavirus-deniers were held in check by the alarming death toll. But now with more vaccinations, conspiracy theorists and deniers can become powerful forces again," he explained.
Practicing psychiatrist Jan Kalbitzer, an expert in stress medicine, believes that reconciliation with coronavirus deniers will be key going forward to build a united society in the next stage of the pandemic.
"The challenge is encouraging people back to reality, not simply telling them they are wrong," he explained. "We need to make sure that reality is more attractive."
Kalbitzer is among those who also believe that communication from leaders will be key in keeping the public on side.
"We have seen an 'individualization of responsibility' in this pandemic," he explained. "This is something we have been concerned about in psychiatry for a long time. Many of these problems are societal problems. And we need to get better at recognizing these as societal problems."
German government ministers have increasingly emphasized the need for solidarity in tackling the pandemic, with Health Minister Jens Spahn proclaiming that everyone "has a responsibility for tackling this virus" earlier this month.
But individual responsibility from citizens is a bitter pill to swallow when ministers appear to have not kept their pledges. Spahn has promised rapid tests for all, but the rollout has been slower than expected. Also, observers have said the governments' vaccine targets cannot be met with the current pace of the rollout. This week, Spahn was branded the "announcement minister" by opponents in the German parliament — always making announcements, but never delivering.
Honesty and realistic targets are now more important than ever, believes Grünewald.
"What is now important is clear perspectives — not only the 'when' but also the 'how'," he explained.
"Political communication must continue to be consistent and uniform; it must be based on criteria, and the criteria must always be well explained," van Dick agreed.
For Kalbitzer, goal-oriented positive communication is instrumental.
"The whole lockdown discourse has been about sacrifice and doing without," he said. "We should be focusing on what people need and how to deliver it, instead of on all the things we are not allowed to do."
Germany's current restrictions will run out on March 7, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with the leaders of the 16 German federal states, is expected to reach a decision on the next stage of pandemic restrictions by March 3.
Media reports indicate that a "tier" system similar to that which has been used in other countries may be put in place, allowing areas with low numbers of cases to reduce restrictions. And Spahn has emphasized that the widespread testing program could allow for reopening even while the virus remains rampant into the spring.
And spring is already around the corner, in sunny Berlin at least. "People want to get into nature; there is a vitalizing power to spring," Grünewald said — adding that politicians must enable this to avoid "anarchy."
Kay-Alexander Scholz contributed reporting to this article